Compact Objects Charging Toward Merger


When two compact objects — neutron stars or black holes — merge, will they emit light? A recent study looks at a neglected factor that could affect the answer: electric charge.

Dark or Light?

neutron-star merger

Artist’s impression of two merging neutron stars producing a gamma-ray burst. [National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet]

Most theories agree that a compact binary containing a neutron star can emit light when it merges. This is because these systems contain lots of neutron-rich matter that can then radiate in the final stages of merger, in the form of gamma-ray bursts, kilonovae, and afterglows.

But what about compact binaries containing two black holes? Or so-called “plunging” black-hole–neutron-star mergers in which the neutron star plunges directly into the black hole before it can be disrupted? Are these mergers all doomed to darkness?

Possible Charge

Not according to Bing Zhang, a scientist at University of Nevada Las Vegas. Recently, Zhang proposed that black holes might carry electric charge in a surrounding magnetosphere. As charged black holes spiral around and around each other during a merger, they could generate electromagnetic radiation: a characteristic signal that rises sharply just before merger.

Now Zhang is back with a generalized model for the merger of charged compact objects, which also explores possible signatures from electrically charged neutron stars. In a new study, he works out the details and reports on where we might be able to detect these signals.

Searching for a Signal

All compact binaries containing a neutron star should emit radiation from electric charge, since neutron stars are definitely charged — they’re essentially spinning magnets. But for most systems containing a neutron star, Zhang demonstrates, the radiation associated with the object’s charge will be non-detectable, since it’s so much dimmer than other electromagnetic signatures from merger (like a gamma-ray burst).

Crab pulsar

The Crab pulsar is a highly magnetized, spinning neutron star that powers the Crab nebula seen in this composite image. [X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward; Optical: NASA/ESA/ASU/J.Hester & A.Loll; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Minn./R.Gehrz]

There’s hope, though, in the scenario of a plunging neutron-star–black-hole merger. If the neutron star is less than 20% the size of the black hole, it can be consumed whole, preventing any of the typical electromagnetic signatures from occurring. In this case, the radiation from the charged, inspiralling neutron star is the only electromagnetic signal present.

If the neutron star in such a system has a magnetic field similar to that of the Crab pulsar — possible in young star clusters — the charge signal can reach detectable levels, according to Zhang’s calculations. In fact, it’s possible that we could observe such a signal as a fast radio burst, the mysterious millisecond radio bursts that we’ve seen originating from beyond our galaxy.

Looking Ahead

Many unknowns are still present in this picture. How is the electric radiation converted into observable emission? How commonly do we expect plunging neutron-star–black-hole mergers to occur as described? Will we be able to link radiation from charged mergers to a gravitational-wave chirp?

One thing is for certain: if we can, indeed, observe the light from charge in a compact-binary merger, this would provide an exciting new opportunity to further probe these distant, exotic systems.


“Charged Compact Binary Coalescence Signal and Electromagnetic Counterpart of Plunging Black Hole–Neutron Star Mergers,” Bing Zhang 2019 ApJL 873 L9. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ab0ae8